Commuter railroads lag in installing safety systems: As many as two-thirds of the 29 commuter railroads required to install high-tech safety systems known as Positive Train Control, or PTC, are running out of time to meet a federal Dec. 31 deadine or apply for an extension, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found. The assessment came out the same day the National Transportation Safety issued a preliminary report on last month’s head-on collision of an Amtrak passenger train and a CSX freight train in South Carolina that killed two Amtrak employees and sent more than 90 others to hospitals, according to The Washington Post. The safety board’s chairman, Robert Sumwalt, said that crash likely could have been avoided had PTC been in place. As FairWarning has reported (here and here), railroad companies have pushed hard for Congress to relax the law mandating PTC. The Rail Safety Improvement Act was passed in late 2008 after a head-on train collision that caused 25 deaths and 135 injuries in Chatsworth, Calif.
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In Saipan, a supersized settlement: Four contractors based in China will pay nearly $14 million in back wages and damages to more than 2,400 employees under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor. The contractors failed to pay minimum wage and overtime to workers building the massive Saipan Casino and Hotel in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. Three of them also illegally hired workers brought to Saipan through a tourist visa waiver program, investigators found.
It’s a whopping figure and the department’s press release indicates there could be more to come, saying the settlement addressed part of the Wage and Hour Division’s “wide-ranging investigation.” It’s hard to know how much impact it will have on the casino owner. Matthew Campbell of Bloomberg Businessweek wrote a jaw-dropping story last month about how Imperial Pacific has dominated the island, building an empire on the backs of workers who are underpaid and subjected to on-the-job dangers, while often flouting local and federal laws and moving such huge sums of money that casino executives told Campbell “they saw no way such volumes could be generated legitimately.”
“Remarkably, the company has also enjoyed the support of a gold-plated roster of American politicos,” Campbell reported. “Its advisers and board of directors have included former directors of the CIA and FBI and former governors of Mississippi, New York, and Pennsylvania.”
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EU considering a ban for the bees: The European Union is poised to ban widely used neonicotinoid insecticides, after its own food-safety commission analyzed more than 1,500 studies and deemed the chemicals to be a risk to wild bees and honeybees. The European Commission could vote later this month to ban all outdoor use of the insecticides but allow them in greenhouses. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of evaluating the risks posed by neonicotinoids.
- Also: Rolling Stone has an interesting read about why it’s so hard to bring pesticide-free pot to market and the characters who are trying. –– A U.S. District Court judge in California temporarily barred regulators from requiring warning labels on food products that contain traces of glyphosate, an ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, the Los Angeles Times reports. Meanwhile, a different federal court in California is evaluating the scientific case against glyphosate, taking testimony on the topic under oath for the first time, according to The Guardian. –– By 2019, as many as 60 million acres of monarch butterfly habitat in the United States could be damaged by the spraying of herbicides that contain dicamba, according to a new report by the Center for Biological Diversity.
Backpedalling on slaughterhouse speeds?: In January, labor advocates cheered a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deny the National Chicken Council’s request that certain slaughterhouses be allowed to kill chickens faster than a 140 birds-per-minute limit. Faster processing lines could mean more worker injuries in an industry that is already hazardous. But then the department last month announced it would consider requests for waivers to that limit at slaughterhouses that implement new technology or procedures and can demonstrate that they will be able to “maintain process control”–a phrase that the The Safe Food Coalition, made up of consumer and public health groups, said was unclear. The coalition also criticized the department for not considering public comment on the waiver criteria.
The revolving door keeps turning: Corporate lawyers move in and out of government offices, very often working on issues in public office in which past or future clients have a significant financial stake. This is nothing new, and it’s a problem in all administrations. Still, the list of dozens of Trump administration lawyers working in agencies that oversee matters that affect recent clients, published by Public Citizen, is astounding. In the Environmental Protection Agency alone, the administration has hired 10 lawyers who have worked for polluters. David Dayen writes in The Nation that the administration’s willingness to grant ethics waivers to lobbyists it hires has made Trump’s promise to ban lobbyists from his team – part of the “drain the swamp” pledge – into “a joke.”
U.S. gun injury rate drops when NRA members gather: Tens of thousands of National Rifle Association members convene each year for the group’s annual meeting and, when they do, gun injuries nationwide have dropped by about 20 percent, according to an analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors, doctors Anupam Jena of Harvard Medical School and Andrew Olenski of Columbia University, used a database of nearly 76 million claims to compare rates of gun injuries during annual conventions from 2007 to 2015 with control dates in the three weeks before and after those conventions. Gun owners aren’t generally using their firearms while they attend the meetings, and places where guns are used, at firing ranges or hunting grounds, may be closed while the proprietors attend the convention. The findings suggest that gun safety isn’t only a matter for novice firearm users, the authors write. “Guns don’t become safe simply through training and experience alone, as gun enthusiasts often argue,” Jena told Julia Belluz of Vox.
- Also: A package of gun control measures is working its way through the Florida legislature, NPR reports. –– L.L. Bean joined the list of retailers placing new limits on gun sales at its stores. But Tiffany Hsu of the New York Times explains that measuring the impact of such limits by retailers will be difficult in an industry that keeps sales data largely under wraps. –– Investors could have a tremendous influence on the gun control debate, Andrew Ross Sorkin writes. A big investment firm, BlackRock, has begun to put the pressure on. –– David French of the National Review writes about a fundamental difference between supporters of gun rights and gun control: The left “simply can’t persuade a rational, reasonable adult who’s experienced a threat that they’re safer without effective means of self-defense. Indeed, the effort to make this case is so often rooted in condescension or ignorance that it’s deeply alienating.”
1-800-Get-Thin doctors get arrested: Two Southern California doctors were arrested last week on charges that they defrauded insurers and patients of $250 million with a weight-loss surgery scheme. Julian Omidi and Mirali Zarrabi, two doctors behind the 1-800-Get-Thin advertising campaign, are accused in a 37-count indictment of using false results from sleep studies to persuade insurance companies to pay millions for Lap-band surgeries, the Los Angeles Times reports. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik has been writing about the scheme for years, including about five patients known to have died after having procedures at clinics affiliated with 1-800-Get-Thin. He wrote last week about the repeated failure of regulators and insurers to intervene even when problems of patient safety and potential fraud became clear.
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.
Stuart Silverstein contributed to this column.